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02:11 pm: Politics and diplomacy.
Because, why not?

Random Superstition of the Day: Cats were once believed to lie on top of babies and suck the breath out of them. One of the many, many reasons that cats were killed and burned alive during the Middle Ages.

Most fantasies have some politics, even if they aren't the focus of the story. (Fantasies that do have them at the center are often of a subspecies other than pure political fantasy, like mystery or war, since the politics usually concern wars and intrigues). But it's possible for a small error to unravel a whole subplot, or even a whole book on occasion. And those errors come most often from unrealistic behaviors, either according to common sense or according to the laws of the fantasy world.

1) Don't have "the hero must look cool" take precedence over "we must placate the enemy." Most fantasy heroes have some smart-aleck genes. The authors often show this by having them use witty banter, outsmart their enemies (though often those plans are so transparent that they must make the enemies idiots), and say outrageous things to important people.

The problem comes with them always getting away with saying outrageous things to important people.

Most political situations are too delicate for fantasy heroes to serve as ambassadors, unless a monarch or other ruler really does want to start a war. Can you imagine your typical fantasy hero firing off one of those insults that his author is so fond of putting in his mouth at an enemy queen? There would be a moment's shocked silence, of course, but any author with a pinch of common sense would see that that wouldn't be the only consequence. The hero could easily cause the enemy queen to declare war on the spot, if she felt insulted enough.

People who are used to being treated better than that, self-important or not, shouldn't just gape and nod at the hero when he says something stupid cool.

2) Don't always use the chess metaphor. Yes, this is a minor point, perhaps, but it's everywhere, the comparing of fantasy politics to a chess game, and by all the gods that never were, it's annoying. Most of the time, the resemblance is very faint, especially when the author has telegraphed every move by her heroes or villains, and there's nothing genuinely surprising. The comparing of heroes to pawns or queens is also nauseating, as is the hackneyed "pawn becomes important piece" scenario.

If a king or lord is really using someone else as a queen, then that means that he or she is unlikely to be on the front lines, the way that queens are rarely threatened until late in the chess game. And if the monarch doesn't really have much use for the hero and does intend to use him as a pawn, still, would he say that to the hero's face? Unlikely. He would tell him something that would satisfy the hero and hopefully secure his loyalty, not make him angry and likely to do something drastic for the sake of a clever metaphor.

3) Make your political leaders either true political leaders, under the control of someone else, or dead. In a world with all the dangers of our own medieval period, give or take a few specific nations and church powers, plus magic, plus supernatural evil like a Dark Lord, there is no place for loose cannon political leaders. Kings who do nothing all year but hunt and eat off golden plates shouldn't exist in your fantasy world. If they do, it's likely that someone else has moved in to fill the void, either an adviser, a group such as a council or parliament, or the nobles. Someone else will always be ready to seize and hold political power, if the person who should have it is only interested in the trappings.

At the same time, don't portray those willing to seize and hold power as always evil. A country with a buffoon king may well need people like this if there's to be any decision-making done. The queen whom the nobles turn to in desperation might make a better ruler than her husband, if only because she has to. Someone else might get fed up enough to remove the king from the throne altogether; this happens in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Is that an evil thing? I think it's only always portrayed that way in fantasy because most fantasy thrones have little to do with the land around them. There, it's all right for kings to gallivant, having nothing else to do, and evil when someone decides to actually do things.

It doesn't mean that the usurper should always have the right motives either, of course. But most fantastic political situations could be considerably more gray than they are.

4) Even the more "boring" parts of politics can provide good storylines. These include building roads, tax and tariff practices, relief for peasants with flooded fields or damaged crops, building cities or cathedrals or other grand projects, hosting councils, and so on. If nothing else, most of these can provide good motives for war. It's amazing how many Earth wars were caused by trade disagreements, or disagreements over tariffs. The American Revolution began in large part as a protest against taxation. Other times, the nobles may become upset that the monarch is taking too much money for pet projects like churches that they don't see the use of, or luring their best workers away from the fields to participate in the projects. A decision made to further trade can have enormous consequences, too. The enclosure movement in England, which boxed up fields, meant that there were thousands of peasants out of work, and they flooded into the cities, especially London, and began modern urbanization and its problems. Something like this would both have a basis in common sense and be a non-hackneyed reason for conflict.

It can work if your hero is the harassed monarch, too. If he's wilting under the weight of work like this, your reader might be more sympathetic to his desire to go off and hunt all day. And the princess or prince who runs away because they don't want the weight of all this would be much more believable than one who runs away because they don't like ballgowns or the notion of being expected to marry someone for a reason other than love.

5) Decide what the diplomatic customs in your world are. Perhaps your world has no such thing as diplomatic immunity, and a monarch could clap an insulting ambassador in irons without starting a war. In that case, it might not make sense for diplomats to be inoffensive people primarily trained to fight with words (though it would still make sense not to send someone as fiery-tempered as your typical fantasy hero). Perhaps the strongest swordsman or mage, one who has happened to travel abroad in order to fight in foreign wars or learn foreign magic, could go. He'd be able to defend himself and stand a good chance of coming back home alive.

If you are going to use diplomatic immunity, soft-spoken diplomats, formal presentations before the enemy court, and so on, do make a serious and credible attempt at presenting them. Many fantasy monarchs make what would be serious mistakes even in a world governed by the same laws as our own. The fiery-tempered fantasy hero as ambassador is only one of them. They also send diplomats who know nothing about the situation, violate diplomatic immunity on their own, mock and make fun of the idea of avoiding war, and break treaties- often with the author's full approval. This makes it seem as though the other countries wouldn't even waste time sending someone; they'd just start stockpiling weapons.

6) Use rarer political tools. Magic is quite often used as a tool of war and intrigue, or as the sign of a particular persecuted minority group in a fantasy kingdom, but it's less often used as a tool of diplomacy. Imagine an ambassador armed with the ability to know when someone was lying to him, or even a world where everyone was like that. It would encourage the development of political double-talk and give it a natural environment to thrive in, which would make a change from fantasy worlds where everyone is apparently bluff and honest and hearty until they start talking to a diplomat.

Language can be a good political organizing tool, too. It's a powerful carrier of culture and identity, and there are several linguistic minorities in modern-day Earth who consider it an important issue. The Basque-speakers in Spain who want to break free of that country include a terrorist group, the ETA, who regularly set off bombs and kidnap businessmen in an attempt to encourage the Spanish government to give them political freedom. The British government nearly stamped out Welsh, but the Welsh-speakers fought back and won the right to teach their language in schools and broadcast programs in it. Language differences between French- and English-speakers are a big deal in Quebec right now. It's present, but fairly rare as a rift in most fantasy. There, the disagreements are almost always because of a Dark Lord or fear of magic.

Just several ideas to play with.

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Date:November 19th, 2012 08:57 am (UTC)
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